NEW ORLEANS (AP) – The Federal Emergency Management Agency is requesting immunity from lawsuits filed on behalf of Gulf Coast hurricane victims who claim they were exposed to dangerous fumes while living in government-issued trailers.
On Wednesday, U.S. District Judge Kurt Engelhardt is scheduled to hear FEMA’s bid to be dismissed from a series of consolidated cases filed against the federal government and the companies that supplied FEMA with tens of thousands of trailers after Katrina and then Rita in 2005.
Lawyers for Gulf Coast storm victims accuse FEMA of negligence for sheltering them in trailers with elevated levels of formaldehyde, a preservative used in construction materials that can induce breathing problems and is believed to cause cancer.
In court papers, FEMA’s lawyers told the judge the agency is entitled to immunity from such claims challenging its response to disasters such as Katrina.
The federal government’s lawyers said FEMA spent more than $2.5 billion to purchase more than 140,000 new trailers from recreational vehicle dealers and trailer manufacturers after the storms. They also said the agency relied on manufacturers to furnish the agency with a “safe, habitable, functional product.”
“It is well-established that the (government) is only liable in such situations if it supervised and directed day-to-day activities of its contractors, which did not occur in this case,” they argued in the court papers.
The government’s lawyers also wrote that a review of legislative history left “no doubt” that Congress intended to enact a broad bar against any such claims arising from disaster relief actions.
Tony Buzbee, one of the lead lawyers for the plaintiffs, said FEMA and the trailer manufacturers “worked hand in hand” after the 2005 hurricanes and should share legal liability in the cases. The lawsuits contend FEMA ignored concerns about formaldehyde levels in trailers for months after Katrina.
“FEMA is right to blame the manufacturers for the production of the toxic trailers, but the agency is not without culpability or legal liability for this debacle,” Buzbee said in a written statement Tuesday.
Lawyers for the plaintiffs want Engelhardt to certify the consolidated cases as a class action on behalf of tens of thousands of current and former trailer occupants in Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas. The judge hasn’t ruled on that request yet.
The plaintiffs’ lawyers said it’s premature for Engelhardt to consider dismissing FEMA from the cases.
By MICHAEL KUNZELMAN